The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks–Second Sunday after the Epiphany—Year A video link
I Corinthians 1:1-9
Christmas is over. A new year has begun. And, Jesus has been baptized, which anchors our core identity as God’s beloveds firmly in our being. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and get to work. Now it’s time to wrestle with call, but before we wrestle with specifics here, we have to understand the nature of call…period.
Take Isaiah. He understands that he was called by the LORD before he was even born, claimed and named while he was still in his mother’s womb. Isaiah understands that he was shaped and formed by God for a specific task—to bring Jacob (the southern kingdom) back to God and to gather Israel (the northern kingdom) to God. Isaiah is not feeling too good about his execution of this call. He says, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity…”
Ever felt that way? Ever sensed what you were supposed to be doing and set out upon that very task only to come up really, really short? Now, at that point, it’s easy to fall into a pit of despair, and the voices can come at you with a vengeance. We could go to the shame place—I didn’t hear the call well enough, I didn’t discern what I was supposed to do well enough, I didn’t have the gifts or skills to execute well enough, OR we could go to the blame place—well, the people of Israel and Jacob, they’re just lousy God-followers, OR we could follow Isaiah to a whole different place, a creative third-way approach. We could skip shame and blame by letting go of the outcome and placing our trust in that great old spiritual virtue known as faithfulness.
Right after Isaiah makes his despairing statement about laboring in vain and spending his strength for nothing, right after he realizes that all his hard work is just a pffff, in the very next breath, he says, “yet surely my cause is with the LORD.” Isaiah goes on to remember that he was formed in the womb to be God’s servant, so he anchors back in his core identity, and he doubles down on trusting that God is his strength. It’s not about succeeding; it’s about understanding who we are made to be in the womb as God’s beloved, as servants of God, and then trusting that we draw our strength from that divine power that resides in us always.
And when we ground there, then we are ready to hear the bigger call that’s coming. In the midst of our failed mission, God comes and whispers, “Oh, this call to Israel and Jacob, this call to these tribes, it’s too light a thing, Isaiah. This may be where we started, but the call is so much bigger than that because the need is so much greater. I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth. Isaiah, it’s not that Israel and Jacob don’t matter, they do, a lot—and we always learn how to live in right relationship by practicing in the relationships closest to us—but they are just the beginning. The whole world is in need of healing. You, you have been formed in the womb to shine a light into the darkness, to bind up the brokenhearted, to manifest healing and wholeness, to call the nations to this vision.” Got it Isaiah? Your failure is the fertile ground for growth that enables you to be an even more powerful agent of salvation, a more powerful catalyst for wholeness.
And what is true for Isaiah is true for you and true for me. Whatever smaller calls we have heard in our lives, all those places where we might have come up short and failed, none of those failures can separate us from the truth that the LORD GOD claimed us and named us in the womb; none of those failures can erase the essential truth that we have been shaped for work in this world. Everything in our lives has seeded our growth and shaped us for the work that now is ours—God is giving us as a light to the nations that God’s wholeness may reach to the end of the earth. And you thought you were just coming to sing and pray and share bread and wine today, right?
And if you are ready to bolt out the door just about now, with a chorus of voices in your head saying, “Who me? I can’t be a light to the nations? I live in Boone, NC for goodness sakes. I don’t know enough. I don’t have enough power. I’m just one voice, and I have no idea what to say to the kings and princes.”
Well, the psalmist breaks it down for us—what we are to proclaim is righteousness, right relationship. The psalmist notes: “In the roll of the book it is written concerning me: ‘I love to do your will, O my God; your law is deep in my heart.’ I proclaimed righteousness in the great congregation; behold, I did not restrain my lips…Your righteousness have I not hidden in my heart; I have spoken of your faithfulness and your deliverance; I have not concealed your love and faithfulness from the great congregation. You are the Lord; do not withhold your compassion from me; let your love and your faithfulness keep me safe for ever…”
Our task, our mission, is first and foremost one of proclamation—to be that voice that talks about righteousness. That keeps holding up before the nations, “This is what right relationship looks like. This is what it looks like to live lives that are in right alignment with God and with one another—with friend and foe, with those who look like us and sound like us and act like us and with those who are complete strangers to us in every way; this is what it looks like to live lives that are in right alignment within ourselves.” And our task is to know that living in alignment always begins in the heart and emanates forth by trusting in God’s love and compassion and faithfulness to us.
And if you still have your doubts about your worthiness for the work God has placed before us today, well, that little Christian community in Corinth that we hear about this morning had the same doubts. And Paul wrote to them to encourage them, and he reminds them, and us, of some essential truths, beginning with his thanksgiving for them:
- I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus,
- for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind—just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you—
- so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift…
- He will also strengthen you to the end…
- God is faithful;
- by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
There’s a lot here. We’ve been given grace. We’ve been enriched in Jesus. It’s his words, his essence that enlivens us and enlightens us, and as we tell the story of his action in our lives, we grow stronger. We may feel like we don’t have enough and aren’t enough to do this work, but Paul is crystal clear, “You are not lacking in any spiritual gift.” Everything we need is in this room. We can count on God to strengthen us all the way to the end. We can count on God’s faithfulness to us. And we have been called, not just into the fellowship of Jesus himself, but we have been called into fellowship with one another. We don’t have to do anything alone.
And if we think we have to have all this nailed down clearly and concretely to engage with Jesus and this mission of bringing wholeness to the end of the earth, if we think we have to have our vision statement and mission statement and goals and objectives all laid out before we can begin, well, we need to think again. The first two disciples follow Jesus because John points to Jesus and says, “Here’s the Lamb of God!” That’s a pretty weird statement and an even weirder reason to follow someone—who even knows what that means? I seriously doubt that those two disciples had thought this whole thing through when they left John and followed Jesus. They just knew that there was something about him, and they needed to be with him. Jesus turns and sees them following, and he asks them, “What are you looking for?” They respond, “Rabbi” (which means Teacher), “where are you staying?” And he responds, “Come and see.” That’s it.
“What are you looking for?”
“Where are you staying?”
“Come and see.”
For all of our doubts about our capacity to do the work that God calls us to do, for all of our doubts about what we lack, what we don’t have enough of, today, it is enough just to be looking for something and to sense that that something we are looking for has something to do with Jesus.
When Jesus asks us, “What are you looking for?”—it is enough, at least for Jesus, to say, “I have no idea, but where are you staying because I just have this sense that what I’m looking for has something to do with you.”
Dave Matthews Band has a song that I love called “Where are you going.” The last verse goes like this:
I am no superman,
I have no answers for you.
I am no hero,
And that’s for sure.
But I know one thing,
That’s where you are, is where I belong.
I do know
Where you go,
Is where I want to be.
Sisters and brothers, at this moment in the life of our nation, in the life of our world, God is asking big things of us. We aren’t superman, we don’t have answers, we aren’t heroes, that’s for sure.
But we do know one thing—where Jesus is, is where we belong, and wherever he goes, is where we want to be.
And with that, Jesus looks at us and says, “Ah, come and see, and together, we’ll find the way.” Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
January 15, 2017